Multi-disciplinary, lifelong learning at Nanyang Polytechnic
According to the Director of Lifelong Learning at Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP), Loh Chuu Yi, previously we would just study in school and then apply what we have learnt to the job we found, after we had graduated.
“Today it’s different. There is realisation that you can teach kids whatever you can during their time in school and university but they can’t learn everything because the world is changing so rapidly,” she said.
Add in the fact it isn’t always easy to find one’s passion or something which one is really good at, and it seems a waste to have to limit the time to define one’s career only to our years in education institutions.
“So, we are encouraging our students and saying, ‘Don’t just stop with opportunities there. Even when you start to work, you can think about what are the skills that you need.”
To not work the job that you have studied for, may seem like a leakage or a waste. But Loh begs to differ, preferring to see it as putting learnt skills like engineering to good use in another domain.
This mindset has led to over 46,000 training places created for working adults seeking professional courses at the polytechnic. Inadvertently, this has created multi-disciplinary learning across different schools.
Loh admitted, “There is a lot of blurring of lines especially across disciplines.”
Skills like computational thinking, for example, is hard to train on with a module. The skill can be assimilated by the student, after going through an engineering programme where it’s the nature of that domain to leverage computational thinking.
“So, we see a lot of IT students going into business, because they understand technology. They understand how data is being used, and when they go to the business domain, they can see the application right away,” Loh said.
She even observed that developer roles are suitable for engineering graduates. “Computational thinking is something that we think is important. It’s about pattern recognition; if you see something often enough, then how do you find that common thread that stretches across and that helps in innovation.
“This way of thinking also talks about how to organise things into processes, into a step-by-step, that a lot of people can follow.”
As a result, NYP is encouraging a lot of cross-disciplinary teams when going out to work with the industry.
Through personal experience, Loh who was IT-trained first, finds that understanding of the business domain can help an IT person deliver the needed outcome for the business.
“When I was in IT school, I see a lot of students trying to hard fit the tech to a problem. They will try to shape a problem so that a new piece of technology they have, can solve it,” she said.
“That’s not how the real world works, of course.”
Real-world training with industry collaborations
Bringing in the real-world industry projects really help to train the thinking for NYP students.
This started as a concerted initiative just last year, where NYP would go out into the industry to look for projects.
“Today, we harness a lot of cross-disciplinary teams to go out as polytechnic, and we have chosen four areas to focus this cross effort – advanced manufacturing, healthcare, food and retail.
“Now, we are saying, ‘Don’t wait for the opportunity, create the opportunity!’”
According to Loh, these teams are also doing quite well. “Now I bring my IT and engineering and digital interactive media team to approach the food and retail industry.
“We have projects in healthcare, and we have to partner with the healthcare school, and the engineering and designers also join in.
“And they all go out together to do projects, or they give training to customers in these sectors.”
Challenge or opportunity
Loh admitted there are challenges, as the academic staff from different schools have different thinking. “They also have their day jobs, so how do they dedicate time to this? We had to sit down with directors from different schools to convince them, and I think the support has been tremendous so far.”
The output from this initiative is really to co-create together with the industry, and work with leaders in the industry, to help other small and medium businesses, level up to the next phase.
Another output of this kind of collaboration is the first unmanned and cashless convenience store on NYP campus, since 2017.
NTUC Fairprice and Cheers launched this store which is also a training facility for NYP’s School of Business Management. It employs front-line retail technologies to empower customers to self-serve, and back-end systems to optimise business operations.
About 180 man-hours have been saved, and the next phase involves working with the School of Information Technology to enhance data analytics to better study and meet customer needs.
According to Loh, NYP first started as a training arm for the Economic Development Board (EDB) of Singapore, in 1992.
“The EDB decided to have a fourth polytechnic, and they took different institutes and formed our engineering school as it’s known today.”
This engineering school comprised of the French Institute, the German Institute and the Japanese Institute, and since then NYP has expanded with seven different schools and three CET (continuing education & training) institutes.
“The way we work with the industry, helps us shape our curriculum and the kind of training we have.”
Whilst NYP’s core activity used to be 3-year programmes for 16 to 17 year-old students, today the main audience they serve is the professional adults.
“HR analytics which is run by my business school, is one of our most popular courses,” Loh shared.
Since 2017, TIBCO and NYP have been developing data analytics capabilities among SMBs, through continuous learning and relevant professional courses.
Another initiative that NYP has started is workplace learning, which is a structured approach to on-the-job training. “Workplace Learning is about companies taking ownership of training of their own employees, with documentation, the mentors and milestones checklists.
“We have started a National Centre of Excellence for this, with German and Swiss partners that are helping us create the kind of training we can bring into SMEs.”